Because writers who resist research often have only a vague idea of what they’re looking for, the task overwhelms them. They don’t know what they’re looking for, so they don’t know how to start, where to go looking, or when to stop.
Writers who get in stuck research, on the other hand, are so engaged with the search itself, they are undaunted by a lack of specificity. It doesn’t matter if they don’t know exactly what they’re looking for; they still know how to start and what to do. But just like writers who resist research, they don’t know when to stop.
The problems look different: one group doesn’t start, the other group doesn’t stop. But the source of the problem is the same: neither group knows exactly what questions they’re trying to answer.
The solution is also the same: both groups need a list of open-ended questions to guide their research. (Writers who resist research may also need help with the technical skills of how to research.)
Consult the Map Before You Go
A list of open-ended questions is your map. The first step in the creative process, First Insight, is to draw your map. The second stage, Saturation (aka research), is to follow your map as far as you need to go.
First Insight is all about asking open-ended questions. (Stages of the creative process are described in Chapter 4 of AWB.) Don’t skimp or rush through this stage. Before you move to research, you should have a written list of at least seven open-ended questions.
If you’ve done extensive research on your topic before, you may be tempted to think you don’t need to research at all or that you only have one or two questions to answer. If you don’t ask new questions, you won’t see new connections. You can regurgitate what you already know in derivative writing, but you won’t write creatively.
Revise the Map as You Go
What you discover will prompt new questions, which revises your map. Be sure to add the new questions to your written list.
Get Lost Anyway
Even with the best of maps and most carefully predetermined routes, you can get lost. Which is great because creative insight is more likely to be found when you let yourself get a little off the trail you thought you’d follow.
You can’t know in advance which questions will lead to answers, which will lead to more questions, and which will lead to dead ends. There will be parts of your research that never make it to the draft and that’s a good thing.
If you could predict exactly where your search would take you, you wouldn’t need to take the journey.
But don’t let new questions lead you endlessly. Don’t turn the map over and start drawing on the other side. As you invent new questions, ask yourself if they truly are related to the questions you started with. If not, push yourself to stop researching and start incubating. (See Chapter 4 of AWB for details.)
Whether you resist research (as I once did) or you prefer to stay in the research forever, a list of open-ended questions is your best guide to writing a piece you’re proud of. You still may not know exactly where you’re going and the route you take may not be exactly what you originally thought, but you’ll know where to start and when to stop.